|By JOHN NATHAN
The two Shakespeare plays that are most obviously about racism, Othello and The Merchant of Venice, turn modern directors inside out. The challenge is to reflect today’s attitudes about prejudice without rewriting Shakespeare. So Shylock’s pitiless view of Antonio must be justified by accentuating the Christian’s anti-Semitism.
But with Othello it has always seemed to me that although Iago’s motives against his boss are quite reasonably portrayed as racist, the convention of casting a burly black actor in the title role can be problematic. Granted, the flawed hero is a warrior, so it’s a no-brainer that he should be beefy. But no-braining shouldn’t be an option in theatre. And the problem that emerges from this particular example of acme casting is that it can perpetuate the actually rather racist view that underneath the Moor’s sophisticated civility, and the colour of his skin, is that racist trope, the noble savage.
However, with Moonlight star André Holland in the role, racial politics is a much more subtle thing. Here at last is an Othello who, despite being in charge of Venice’s army, is much more a thinker than a warrior.
Holland has the easygoing air of a perfect dinner guest. Granted, in his return to the theatre that he once ran, the flat army cap worn by Mark Rylance’s Iago does have a whiff of slave-owning confederacy about it. But this production directed by Claire van Kampen (Rylance’s wife) is a mixed-race affair. Othello’s favourite lieutenant Cassio (Aaron Pierre) is black, and assumptions about Iago’s views on his boss’s race are complicated (in a good way) by the fact Iago’s wife Emilia (Sheila Atim) is black.
There are one or two less desirable outcomes with this shift. Holland’s Othello is no taller, and perhaps a good deal slighter, than his wife Desdemona, played by the statuesque Jessica Warbeck. So when Iago suggests to his boss that he strangles her, you can’t help feeling Othello may need some help. Perhaps a stepladder.
In the end, he has to approach his wife from behind, loop an arm around her neck and do the deed with a kind of wrestling death grip. It does the job, both in the sense of despatching the innocent, libelled victim and, more importantly, plunging the Globe’s often easily distracted audience into aghast, stone-still silence.
Rylance’s performance, meanwhile, is more conventional, though just as effective. As his Iago genuflects and fawns his way into Othello's trust, Rylance conveys a man whose hatred for the Moor is attached to an inability to love anything or anyone else. There is something utterly uncharismatic about this Iago and the reptilian guile with which he goes about his ruinous conspiracy.
Not long before I saw this show, Trump’s right-hand man Rudy Giuliani turned to Shakespeare to describe his contempt for the president’s former lawyer Michael Cohen. The level of betrayal displayed by Cohen, now central to a potentially embarrassing and damaging investigation about Trump, was on par with Iago, said Giuliani. Or Brutus, he said.
Such comparisons rarely stand much scrutiny. If Cohen is Brutus, then Giuliani must be Mark Antony, which means Giuliani will end up praising Cohen as “the noblest ... of them all.” And did Giuliani really mean to compare Trump to Othello, who could be described as a much respected and loved black leader who attained his position despite widespread white prejudice?
And yet, there is something about the sycophantic way in which Cohen comes across in his own secret recording of his conversations with Trump that suggests Giuliani has a point.
Because though happy to use a knife murderously, Iago’s weapon of choice when it comes to assassination of character is the little lie, the carefully placed rumour and, most devastating of all, a constant display of loyalty.